Published in the SCMP’s Childcare magazine October 2006
For seven years now, British primary school teacher Tim Rylands and his 11-year old pupils have been regular travelers through the mystical, interactive world of Myst during classroom time.
Together they make decisions and solve problems in this top-selling graphic adventure computer game. The children then write about and express in words what they came upon in the game and what these encounters might mean.
At the Chew Magna Primary School in Bristol where Rylands teaches, literacy levels for that age group have shot up from 76.5 per cent in 2000 to 93 per cent in 2004, both figures higher than the national average of 75 per cent.
Rylands is confident that this improvement is a result of the creativity that the computer game has inspired in his pupils.
The British government agrees with him. Last year Rylands won the Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) award for the most innovative use of technology in the classroom.
Games, like Tetris for example, are also believed to improve mental spatial processing abilities. UCLA psychology professor Patricia Marks Greenfield cited video game playing as a major cause in the rise of non-verbal IQ in the US in her book Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Video Games and Computers.
How Much is Too Much?
Still, parents often worry that their children spend too much time in front of a screen, be it the television, the computer or the video game console, and not enough time on their studies or outdoors playing with friends.
Besides concerns of graphical displays of violence and sexuality in game content and the strong language that tend to accompany those, parents fret over the intense immersion of children absorbed in gaming.
The visual electronic media activities of gaming, online chatting and watching TV frequently appear to parents as mindless preoccupations and are viewed as trivial and a waste of time, with nothing worthwhile to contribute to a child’s intellectual or moral growth.
Earlier this year, a headmaster in a South London school that takes in pupils with behavioural problems and who have been excluded from mainstream schools,
claims to have improved the academic results and behaviour of under-performing pupils by confiscating their game consoles, TVs and computers from their homes.
What will happen to our children who spend a disproportionate amount of their time on these pursuits? Will the effects be positive or negative? The answers to these questions are important because our culture today is soaked in digital media and no child is exempt from its influence.
Video and computer game sales in the US alone hit US$7.3 billion last year, putting it in the same league as movies, which raked in about US$9 billion. Throw in sales of game consoles like PlayStation 2, Xbox, Game Cube and hand-held systems like Gameboy, Nintendo DS and PSP, and the figure bloats to US$9.9 billion.
In Hong Kong, video games were the main driver of growth in the toy and games industry, with sales approaching HK$280 million in 2003.
In both the US and UK, where data is more readily available, a whopping 80 plus per cent of 8-19 year olds have at least one game console at home. In the US, half of all children under six have used a computer and 30 per cent have played a video game.
Marc Prensky, founder and CEO of game-based learning company Games2train, calls this generation of children who have been exposed to digital technology from birth “Digital Natives”.
Unlike the older ‘Digital Immigrants’ who have had to adapt to the new digital environment midway through their lives, digital natives are different in the way they process information and in the language they speak.
The average college graduate today would have spent 5,000 hours reading but 10,000 hours playing video games and 20,000 hours watching TV, according to Prensky.
Today’s children will spend their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, mobile phones, video games, digital music players like the iPod, video cameras and all other tools of the digital age.
“Digital natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the other way round,” Prensky explained.
“They prefer random access. They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and instant rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work,” he continued.
Just as Rylands demonstrated in the Bristol primary school, games can be a boon to education because they are scripted in the same language as the children who they aim to teach.
Researchers Wartella and Jennings point out in their article Children and Computers – New Technology, Old Concerns that the current debates about the positive and negative effects of computers on children raise the same issues that have been raised with other new technologies in the past.
Positive educational benefits and the negative exposure to violent, sexual and age-inappropriate content were all deliberated when films were introduced in the early 1900s, radio in the 1920s and television in the 1940s.
Even books, which are now highly prized in the race for intellectual development, were viewed with suspicion when the printing press was invented. We fear the things that we do not understand.
Furore Over Grand Theft Auto
An example of a video game that gets parents enraged is the highly popular but controversial Grand Theft Auto (GTA). In the game the player takes on the role of a street gangster, is able to steal cars, run over people, have sex with a prostitute then kill her, or not, and so on.
The latest release GTA: San Andreas caused a furore last year because of a software patch that could be downloaded which allows players to access and engage in explicit sex scenes.
As a result of the uproar, the game had its rating in the US changed from M for mature (over-17s only) to AO for adults only (over-18s). But GTA maker Rockstar North is preparing to re-launch an ‘M’ version of the product.
Whatever its rating, the fact is that GTA: San Andreas, with revenues of US$235 million in the first week of its release, winds up in the hands of many children.
This is of grave concern to parents and parental watchdog groups in the US like Mediawise, Children Now and the National PTA are planning to get together to issue and endorse a set of ratings recommendations.
Nonetheless in spite of its objectionable content, Prensky believes that GTA with its explicit fantasy play has a healthy dose of real-world education inherent in it, including helping players strategise based on results and consequences, make choices and examine options and sort through conflicting values and feelings.
As the digital natives grow up, the generational divide will narrow. “We force new technologies to prove that they’re not the worst thing ever and eventually when we sort it out we relax a bit,” said Ben Sawyer, president of Digitalmill, a consulting firm that works on gaming projects.
“My guess is the next generation of parents won’t be so apprehensive,” he added.
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